“Good to be alive”: Japanese swimmer Rikako Ikee’s remarkable journey from illness to the Olympics

“Good to be alive”: Japanese swimmer Rikako Ikee’s remarkable journey from illness to the Olympics

After winning six gold medals as MVP of the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, 18-year-old swimmer Rikako Ikee was soaring and poised for world glory at the 2020 Olympics in her hometown.

A few months later, however, Ikee found herself fighting for her life – she was diagnosed with acute lymphoid leukemia in February 2019. When Ikee revealed her illness in a social media post, shock among the Japanese audience was huge.

Here is a young athlete in her prime and on the way to possibly becoming a world superstar with a fatal disease. Ikee’s ad made headlines in Japan and on television.

People could only shake their heads at Ikee’s dramatic turnaround. It was the kind of moment that first made many young people think of their own mortality. Ikee, a student at Nihon University, received an incredible wave of support from fellow athletes and fans.

WATCH | A wave of support for Ikee after leukemia diagnosis:

Gold medalist Maggie Mac Neil of Canada and the other 2 medalists in the women’s 100m butterfly pay tribute to Rikako Ikee of Japan who revealed his diagnosis of leukemia earlier this year. 0:30

Ikee, who finished sixth in the 100-meter butterfly at the Rio 2016 Games as a freshman in high school, said at the time that she hoped to recover from treatment for her illness and return to the pool to swim at the Games. Paris 2024 Olympics. It was clear that even 18 months later she would not be fit to swim at the Tokyo Games.

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More from Tokyo 2020

Then, in an absolutely bizarre twist of fate – a once-in-a-century pandemic – Ikee’s schedule was suddenly extended by 12 months. Ikee, who naturally became fragile from her successful treatment, which included chemotherapy and 10 months in hospital, played down rumors that she would attempt to swim in Tokyo 2020.

Ikee was released from the hospital in January 2020 and started training again in March. She returned to the pool in late August after almost 600 days of absence and won her series in the 50m freestyle at a competition in Tokyo.

Japan national team coach Norimasa Hirai said at the time he was impressed with what he saw of Ikee upon his return.

“Some athletes have lost sight of their goals because the Tokyo Olympics have been postponed,” Hirai told Japan Forward sports editor Ed Odeven. “But for Rikako, beating the disease and making a comeback means that she really enjoys swimming.

“I think top athletes not only have the opportunity to follow the results in front of them, but also to question the importance of continuing to compete and grow. [as athletes and individuals]”Hirai added.

Hirai felt that Ikee’s return would reverberate far beyond the pool.

“I think his swimming not only gives courage to everyone, but also shows us a lot of things, such as the importance of continuing to compete and the courage of human beings,” Hirai said.

The swimming world started to shake up at this point.

WATCH | Ikee could be the next swimming superstar:

18-year-old swimming phenomenon Rikako Ikee has been making waves in the swimming world since the age of fifteen. Competing in the 50, 100 and 200-meter freestyle events, she is a name to watch heading into Tokyo 2020. 1:09

Was it possible that Ikee was actually fit enough to compete in the delayed Tokyo Olympics?

Ikee’s story was starting to become the one they make movies about. She added to her legacy by winning four events (50m butterfly, 100m butterfly, 50m freestyle, 100m freestyle) at the Olympic trials in April in Tokyo.

Her victory in the 100m freestyle qualified her to compete in the 4x100m medley and 4x100m freestyle relays for Japan at the Olympics.

In search of national records

Although her times weren’t fast enough to qualify her for the individual events of the Games under Japanese Swimming Federation rules, Ikee expressed satisfaction after coming out of the pool in tears during the trials.

“I’m thrilled to have won four titles here,” said Ikee, who started swimming at age three. “Overall I thought my times were very good. I entered these national championships with an attitude that I did not have in the past.

Ikee’s performances made him think of more than wins.

“I think I’m getting closer and closer to breaking the Japanese records that I have,” Ikee said. “It might not happen right away, but I’m doing it.”

Ikee is celebrating after qualifying for the Olympics at national trials in April. (Charly Triballeau / AFP via Getty Images)

Although she will not swim in the individual races at the Olympics, Ikee’s mere presence as a member of the relay teams will serve as an inspiration to her teammates.

“She will be a very valuable member of the country’s relay teams and the fact that she was able to achieve an Olympic qualification in the relay events is a testament to her perseverance and sheer talent,” said John Lohn, editor-in-chief of the Swimming World magazine, noticed.

Missing the time she took battling leukemia, her initial goal was to qualify for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. But she progressed faster than expected and was able to earn a place in the team that will compete at home. It was not only an impressive achievement, but heartwarming to watch. She was widely supported and encouraged by her competitors, and her story resonated around the world.

“Prior to her illness, Rikako was considered one of the best in the world at the 50 freestyle, 100 freestyle, 200 freestyle and 100 butterfly. She has an impressive lineup and, had she not had leukemia, surely would have competed. for individual medals in Tokyo. Based on her progress, she will likely be a factor at the Paris Games. “

Ikee participates in the 100 butterfly in April. (Iori Sagisawa / Kyodo News via AP)

Ikee flaunted his streak of competing outside the pool in May when anti-Olympic supporters began sending him messages on social media asking him to drop out or oppose the Games due to the pandemic.

“Even if you want me to oppose [holding the Olympics], nothing I say will change anything, “Ikee wrote in Japanese on Twitter.” I share your desire to get out of this darkness as quickly as possible, but putting that burden on individual athletes is very difficult.”

Ikee went on to explain that she was dealing with stress caused by the ongoing pandemic due to her battle with leukemia.

“I have a chronic illness, and whether the games take place or not, I live each day with the anguish of the possible [being infected with the coronavirus and] get seriously ill, ”Ikee wrote.

The Olympic spirit in the spotlight

Odeven, who worked in Japan for 15 years and covered swimming at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the London Olympics in 2012, noted that Ikee’s appeal is considerable.

“Rikako Ikee is one of Japan’s most popular athletes because of her persistence and determination to defeat leukemia and strive for excellence in the pool,” said Odeven. “Ikee’s dedication and hard work resonates with people of all ages.”

When Ikee lines up for her legs in the Olympic relays, it will be an emotional moment for her and for the legions of fans in Japan and abroad who have seen her return.

Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympic Games, once described his vision of the spirit of the Games: “The most important thing at the Olympic Games is not to win but to participate; the main thing in life is not to conquer but to fight. good.”

Ikee is a living example – and its story is not over yet.

In her last event before the Olympics, Ikee and her teammates set a Japanese record in the 200 freestyle relay when meeting in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture on her 21st birthday on July 4.

Reflecting on his epic journey over the past two and a half years, Ikee briefly put it into perspective afterwards.

“It was really tough,” Ikee commented. “I honestly think it’s good to be alive.”

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